The Sometimes-Uncomfortable Hunger of the Storyteller // Jessica Moore

The questions for this interview with author Jessica Moore were put together by the team at moorehype.

Part long poem, part investigation, this true story begins with a whale encounter and then dives into the affair of the École en bateau, a French countercultural school aboard a boat. The École was based on the ideals of ’68, but also twisted ideas about child psychology, Foucault’s philosophy and an abolition of the separation between adults and children. As more troubling details are revealed, the text touches on memory, trauma and environmental grief, ultimately leading to buried echoes from the author’s own life and family history.

At the dark heart of The Whole Singing Ocean is the question: how is it possible to hold two things―rapture and pain―at once?

moorehype: The long poem as a form has a vast tradition. Were there any long poems that inspired you to take this form with your new book?

Jessica Moore: I am always inspired by Anne Carson and her stories in poetic shards (Autobiography of Red, Red Doc, The Beauty of the Husband—all of it, really); I loved Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Schackenberg, which explores the illness and death of a loved one in verse; The Grey Islands, by John Steffler is another poem sequence I like very much, set upon a lonely rock. While I was writing The Whole Singing Ocean, I took part in the long poem colloquium at Sage Hill with Phil Hall, where we focused on the works of Robert Kroetsch and talked about way a long poem can be porous and at the same time resistant. Unbound by the rules of fiction or collections of poetry, more spacious. It’s hard finding the right name for things sometimes. And many of the books that I have found inspiring in recent years are not long poems at all, but works in fragments of other kinds (Bluets by Maggie Nelson, Department of Speculation by Jenny Offil, In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado; This Little Art by Kate Briggs; and, currently, Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson). Many of them are somewhat genre-defying, containing, as does The Whole Singing Ocean, elements of non-fiction, memoir, poetry, and lyric. This book reflects elements of the long poem, yes, but in some ways I like “story in fragments” better. 

mh: The ocean is an enigma to many, but we traverse and do business and use it in our daily lives. How has your relationship changed toward the ocean in the process of completing this book?

JM: I have spent more time in the last year stretching my awareness—trying to enlarge myself to feel into the world (the ocean) through a whale’s eyes—or rather, ears. To feel into what it’s like to be an enormous mammal in the sea. Trying to let my edges soften so I could sense the pull of tides and begin to know the sway of ocean plants (in part through some amazing dance classes I took pre-pandemic). Mostly, writing the book has just made me want to spend more time near the ocean! Which I used to do yearly, in my life before children, but have not done for many moons now. Also, in the same way one of the book’s central themes (abuse) is resisted at first by the narrator (me), I felt resistant to learning more about the plastic debris and the acidity of the oceans for this book because it’s so hard to stay buoyant and full of joy when hit with the hard facts. But there it is. It’s real.

mh: The École en bateau almost seems like something out of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. How did you tackle such a topic?

JM: With the École, as with rest of the threads in the book, I went in with curiosity, with the sometimes-uncomfortable hunger of the storyteller, and with a sense of following. I had to follow where the story led me. This happened in conversations (with “the boat builder,” and with the “author of the book”), in internet searches that turned up articles about the court case, and in a handful of documentary pieces about the École, both before and after the trial. I tried to tackle it with something other than a black & white viewpoint (although “some things are [black & white], they have to be”). And, in terms of writing about those who were children onboard, I approached this with great care and caution, “like a child with a hot bowl of soup in two hands.”

Also, just as an aside, I think the École was more orderly than it may seem—for all the talk of erasing hierarchy and having children be equal to adults, my understanding, from the boat builder and other participants, is that there was always a leader, and that was the director of the school, who didn’t believe in play.

mh: The lilting sense your poetry creates is quite astounding; for example, "the thrum-rumble of a slow motor" or "my own known ceiling." Did you spend time reading the poem aloud as you composed it, to get a sense of its sound?

JM: Yes! I always do.

mh: Some reports suggest COVID-19 has healed the earth. This may sound a bit cheesy, but how do you think the ocean feels about this change?

JM: You know, there were a few weeks early on in the pandemic when I felt filled with hope. Like, really, really hopeful that this would be the huge wake-up call we needed, that individuals and industries would realize their recklessness, that all of us would know deeply the preciousness of the wild spaces we have left. I feel sad every day that I live on the shores of a lake that’s too polluted to drink from—that this is our “normal,” waterways that are too polluted to use safely. How did that ever become normal?

With lockdown and limited travel, I did feel glad that all our ecosystems were given a break, the oceans among them. I really thought we would come out different—that we would have to come out the other side different: more awake, more kind, more caring. In New Zealand during lockdown, not a single disposable cup was tossed for months! But now we have all these plastic disposables being used everywhere to limit contagion. And when lockdown lifted, there were just as many cars burning down Dufferin St., just as many people lined up to get their takeout coffee.

It’s so hard to talk about these things without becoming zealous or preachy, which is not what I want. I just mean that in the acute times of really examining our actions, it feels impossible that we could continue on the way we have been. And then the acuteness subsides, and I forget to bring my own mug, and buy coffee in a takeout cup anyway. But I guess I don’t want any of this—our wasteful, dulled way of living—to be, to remain, normalized. 

mh: What do you hope readers will walk away with after having read TWSO?

JM: Dark vining wonder and a sense of golden liminality.

mh: Loss and memory is a theme in your work—how cathartic is writing about it?

JM: Cathartic is not a word I tend towards, but I did find that this book brought with it a measure of healing. Writing The Whole Singing Ocean was like plunging into a great and sometimes awful unknown, tiptoeing through the ravages, and still finding a way to come out with some remnant of wonder. The process felt meaningful for the boat builder, and also for my mother and me. I’m careful of binaries with this answer, as I try to also be in the book—I do strive to be big enough to hold two very different things at once (awe and horror, gratitude and grief, rapture and pain…), but I also feel that the book gestures to something beyond duality and binaries—something “borderless, fluid,” that I want to keep discovering.

Jessica Moore is the author of a collection of poems, Everything, now (Brick Books, 2012), and the translator for Mend the Living (Talonbooks, 2016), a translation of the novel by Maylis de Kerangal, which was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017. Moore’s writing has also appeared recently in BOMBCanadian ArtArcCV2The New QuarterlyCarouselThe Volta and The Antigonish Review. Moore lives in Toronto, ON.

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